[This is the second illustrated essay on the work of Kay Francis; the first being an overview, “The Fascinating Miss Francis” (https://violdam6.wordpress.com/2011/04/24/the-fascinating-miss-francis-one-phase-2/). The series continues with this installmentfeaturing the classic soap operetta, a milestone of American film melodrama, the tragedy-in-miniature, “One Way Passage,”from Warner Brothers in 1932, directed by Tay Garnett, photographed by Robert Kurrle, screenplay by Wilson Mizner and Joseph Jackson, based on a story by Robert Lord, and starring Kay Francis, William Powell, Aline MacMahon, Warren Hymer and Frank McHugh.]
The words “classic” and “movie” together have meaning only if they are used to define a particular style of film created and then developed to its peak of cinematic possibility. If a film style of early 1930’s Hollywood emerged and became classic in form, it was one in which filmmakers were no longer just comfortable with sound, but fluent in it, learning its expressive possibilities and the ways it could be used in conjunction with the visual elements to create a kind of cinematic shorthand (imagine, for example, an interior scene where we hear a car pull up outside and its doors slam shut one after the other — we expect something to happen without seeing either the car or the other persons). The best of these films achieve “classicism” when they combine the technical advances and the artistic innovation fostered by the new technology with the careful composition and expressive photography of silent film.
Within that style, there exists a more nakedly emotional form, something I’ll refer to as “film melodrama,” after its 19th and early 20th century theatrical counterpart. It is a form that encompasses any recognized film “genre,” be it gangster or crime film, period epic, war film or, more obviously, the kind of film referred to as “soap opera,” “women’s pictures,” “weepies,” films that we call “sentimental” as if sentimentality is a weakenss, a flaw or a fault.
One of the best examples of film melodrama, with a brisk pace typical of the best of early sound film (but unusual for a love story in any era), rapid advancement of plot and character development — without loss of detail, coherence and dramatic punch, is “One Way Passage.” It is emotionally full, which has caused the jaded and closed-of-heart to label it as corn-syrupy and sentimental. Since the world of art criticism and academia are largely populated by those for whom art is a dish best served cold (and unknowable by the masses and the non-intellectual), it is rarely if ever mentioned as being among the important works of its time, the early sound period, the early years of the Depression, 1930s Hollywood just prior to the introduction of the censorial Production Code. It is a flawed film (as are many outstanding films), but unlike many flawed films which flounder in their second half or final act, this film does the exact opposite — it had me shaking my head in disbelief when I first saw the sequence preceding the final shot (and again even more so when I isolated the still frames in preparation for this piece). Watch it for yourself. But first read this brief sketch, or just look at the still frames (if you fear spoilers, don’t read the end or look at the last half dozen sets of frames).
“One Way Passage” is a milestone of minimalist melodrama in which every shot counts or at least adds to the accumulation of detail without wasting a minute (except Frank McHugh’s drunken mirror-image scene halfway through). It builds rapidly within the short format of the film to draw and absorb the viewer to the point where lines of dialogue clichéd even in 1932 can still seem appropriate, and not cringe-worthy.
The screenplay is ripe with the cynicism of the early 1930’s juxtaposed with one line emotional pronouncements that would indeed seem obvious to “sophisticated” viewers, especially those in later, even more cynical times. But if it pulls back from the frank sexuality and double entendres of much of pre-code Hollywood film, it is appropriate. The film is about two people who embark on a voyage and a serious love that neither of them should start, and one that cannot be fulfilled — at least not in a typical way. It is not a casual affair, ships passing in the night, but rather one ship passing through time with two souls who are soon to be parted — but who cannot be separated for eternity.
Dan is a convicted murderer who escaped after being sentenced to hang, and a San Francisco Detective, Steve Burke, has tracked him down and takes him aboard a ship in Hong Kong, about to sail for San Francisco, with a stop at Honolulu. Joan is a young socialite with a bad heart, an essentially terminal condition. She is accompanied by her doctor who warns her against virtually any activity that might make her already hopeless plight almost bearable. Naturally she encounters Dan in a Hong Kong bar, and after he is arrested and cuffed, he will be (unknown to Joan) joining her on the boat back across the Pacific to the States.
An interesting twist for jaded audiences of then, and now, is that both protagonists are essentially pure of heart (outside of one homicide and a heart condition, of course). Joan’s serious health condition makes her physically weary and cynical; she is wealthy (she travels with her private physician and an extensive wardrobe), yet is not overly showy nor unbearably sophisticated; she is a sweet, kind and intelligent woman one could easily imagine falling in love with. Dan is not a con man, wise-guy, gigolo, fallen angel or reformed sinner. He is simply a decent man who must pay the ultimate penalty “for croaking the dirtiest heel who ever lived,” according to his crooked acquaintances, Skippy the larcenous drunk and Barrelhouse Betty the con-artist hooker. And Betty describes him best to us: “He’s got everything — strength, youth, courage — everything that makes life fit to live.” The story begins in a nameless waterfront Hong Kong “international” bar:
How is it that a film can take its time to carefully establish characters and important elements — recurring themes and various motifs that will serve purposes both symbolic and direct, brightly alive and comic while encompassing death, dark and tragic — yet barely exceed 65 minutes?
There is a purity about the construction, almost nothing extraneous, nothing to distract, no loud music, no cursing (in a bar filled with sailors, at that), no irrelevant pop-culture references to show how cool the filmmakers (or the characters) are. No hard sell. Just the honest reactions of the individuals undiluted by anything unrelated directly to them, their story. We thus get inside them and have in a very brief time, a keen sense of what it is like to be them in those “intimate” moments in a very public place that by its nature would normally preclude intimacy. A setting in which a less competent filmmaker, writer or actor would be tempted to exploit for many other effects outside of the core story element — intense reaction of physical love of (not necessarily “at“) first sight — and then we care enough to wait and watch because we want to know if this feeling of first sight can continue with the second — and so we continue to watch and to care.
The following series of 11 sets of still frames (with two frames each) is among the most impressively photographed and staged love scenes in American film history, rivaling those of Garbo and Gilbert in “Flesh and the Devil” for sheer romance, and Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in “Now, Voyager,” for Best Use of Cigarettes As Romantic Prop.
But “the world and time” begin to catch up with Joan and Dan. As they leave their secluded trysting place and head back toward port Dan, who is to leave shortly on his pre-arranged escape, begins to tell Joan the truth about himself.
In one of the more remarkable scenes of death in an American film of its — or any — era, Joan and her moment of dying dissolve into a New Year’s Eve balloon:
Their planned meeting, at Agua Caliente, New Year’s Eve, two months later. As the balloon is burst by a silhouetted hand with cigarette, a dreary party unfolds before the camera in a tracking shot that extends around the floor . . .
. . . to the corner of the bar where a solitary drinker, the happy-go-lucky larcenous lush, Skippy, is found . . .
and in a devastating shot, the camera circles around the corner of the bar with a barely recognizable Skippy as its focal point, completely, utterly alone.
As the camera passes him, we see two bored bartenders wiping their glasses, when they hear the sound of crystal glass, breaking behind them. After one scolds the other to “watch your elbows,” they turn around to see . . .
. . . broken glasses, seemingly unattended, dissolving before their eyes.
There are times when popular culture produces work that transcends the “pop” and becomes deeply significant within that culture. At its best it tells us — convinces us — that this is something important that we all share, deeply but often unknowingly until the product, the “object” that fulfills the function of art, gives us an example of that shared human existence. It is the very definition of art. It does not have to be epic in scope, obsessive in detail or in strict adherence to nature. It can be very small, but true. Truth in miniature, inside a locket that we rarely open, but when we do, it is as if we’ve never stopped looking or thinking — its impact is once again immediate, visceral and stays with us at least as long as our mortal senses allow. Specific to a time, yet timeless.